Monday, July 15, 2019

39. Little Big League


The movie: Little Big League (Andrew Scheinman, 1994)

Have I seen this movie before? Yes.

How I saw it: Amazon.

The recommender: Elroy Sequeira.

Elroy's rationale: Some might argue that the day I became an American was the day I became a citizen. To that, I say: poppycock (I would have used an expletive, but I know this is a family blog). I became an American the day I sat down and watched Little Big League (the first movie I watched in America). After all, what's more American than baseball, and what's more representative of the American Dream than a twelve-year-old boy becoming owner of the Minnesota Twins? One of Jessica's friends always asks if my lifelong dream was to become manager of the Twins because of this movie. That day, my love for the Twins blossomed, and it burns passionately to this day (am I right, Ellen??). Too bad they can't stop losing to the Yankees (boo), but I have a feeling they'll exorcise those demons this year (I can't wait to laugh at this a year from today because they'll inevitably lose to the Yankees in October). I love the Twins. I love Kirby Puckett (his daughter even went to my high school). I love Johan Santana, Frank Oliva, Kent Hrbek, Rod Carew, Harmon (no last name needed), Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, Jose Berrios, Eddie Rosario, and, of course, the hometown kid, Joe Mauer. They're still the only major male Minnesotan sports team to win a championship during my lifetime. As sad as that is, I cling to it because of this movie. I hope you enjoy this movie and that it brings you as much joy as it has brought me.

My familiarity with this movie: I have seen this movie many, many times. There were a bunch of youth-driven baseball films in the early ‘90s, a time when I coincidentally happened to be a youth. You could argue that the trend started with The Sandlot in 1992, a movie I avoided for many years due to the fact that it had a big dog in it. (I avoided Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban for the same reason.) But while The Sandlot is great in its own way, Little Big League has a much closer relationship to two other early-'90s baseball films: Rookie of the Year and Angels in the Outfield. All three are fantasy films about actual kids getting involved with major league teams, whether by inheriting/managing one (LBL), playing for one (ROTY), or vague mysticism (AITO). (Interesting/sad note for Elroy: since these movies were released, the Cubs and Angels have both managed to win the World Series. The Twins will get there! They’re winning the AL Central! Jorge Polanco is a budding superstar! I’m sorry about all the times they’ve lost to the Yankees.) Of those three movies, though, this one has always been my favorite. Even as a kid, I could tell that ROTY and AITO, while fun, were just not realistic. Little Big League, which I will remind you is about a twelve-year-old child becoming the owner and manager of the Minnesota Twins, felt like it could actually happen, at least to me. At the age of twelve, I felt certain that I could have managed a major league baseball team, which really tells you all you need to know about me as a twelve-year-old. Just insufferable. This movie, though, is not insufferable. I am v v excited that Elroy has given me an excuse to watch it again.

Plot summary yoinked from IMDb: “The Chairman of the Minnesota Twins baseball team passes away of natural causes and in his will leaves his grandson, Billy Heywood, ownership of the team. Billy, despite being only 12 years old, is a devotee of the sport, knows the Twins inside and out, and believes he has what it takes to make the Twins a championship winning team, so he appoints himself the new manager. But will the proud, arrogant players of the team be willing to take orders and tactics from a 12-year-old boy?”

What I thought of the movie: In my life I have not seen a better movie than this one. My Lord it’s great. Everything about it is beautiful, goofy nonsense. Two hours of pure joy. Upon watching it for the zillionth time, I focused on two major reasons why it holds up so well. The first is that, unlike most movies, this one has good child actors. Luke Edwards as Billy Heywood is way better than any of his kid baseball movie protagonist peers, who both went on to greater success in their adulthood (Joseph Gordon-Levitt and that one guy from American Pie). Billy L. Sullivan and Miles Feulner as Billy’s two idiot friends are also terrific, and the conversations they have are dopey and wonderful, in the exact right way that twelve-year-old boys are dopey and wonderful. The movie’s insights into what it would be like for a kid to actually manage a baseball team are fairly superficial (the players don’t respect him, he has less time for his friends, etc.), but the fact that the movie is still so good is a testament to what a great concept it is. It’s a fairly obvious plot once Billy takes over the team: the players are skeptical, but Billy wins them over with his enthusiasm before he gets corrupted, and then they all band together to make a great comeback and almost win the whole thing (although in this movie the “whole thing” is, very charmingly, the Wild Card). The details are top-notch, though: Billy has the team help him with his math homework, with hilarious results. Billy curses out an umpire, who not only throws Billy out of the game, but also snitches on him to Billy's mom and gets him grounded. Imagine! The best is when Billy, alone in a hotel room on the road, watches an adult film eleven times in one night, then falls asleep in the dugout the next day. The name of that film? Night Nurses from Jersey. NIGHT NURSES FROM JERSEY! In a family film! Wild! The other reason why the movie holds up so well is that it gets the baseball right. I may be biased on this front, but the character of Billy Heywood, a kid who knows more about the rules and history of baseball than any twelve-year-old should and can rattle off specific events from games that occurred decades before he was born, resonated very, very deeply with me. And the movie is as smart about baseball as Billy is, having him and his grandfather discuss the type of difficult trivia questions (who was on deck for Bobby Thomson’s Shot Heard ‘Round the World in 1951?) that actual baseball fans love. The reverence the movie has for the game is spot-on, and is clearly a part of why so many actual players (including Carlos Baerga, Paul O’Neill, and Ken Griffey, Jr. aka the coolest person in the entire world in 1994) made cameos in it. Despite the previous paragraph, there are moments in the movie that I did quibble with. (You can feel free to skip this paragraph if you have any sense at all.) First, when Billy first proposes that he manage the team, the crusty pitching coach Mac devises a tricky scenario to test whether he’s up for it. After a brief debate, Billy proves himself up for the task. My quibble is not with Billy’s analysis of the situation, which is correct, but rather that Mac’s initial solution was to order his #3 hitter to SACRIFICE BUNT in the eighth inning of a tie game! WHAT. Billy should have fired him on the spot! Anyway. Compare this movie to Rookie of the Year and Angels in the Outfield, which starred Gary Busey and Tony Danza, respectively, as the main players. Each of them were well into their forties when the movies were released. Little Big League, on the other hand, features the great Timothy Busfield (then in his late thirties) as Lou Collins, the team’s star first baseman/guy who’s dating the manager’s mom (a rare double dip in today’s MLB). And folks, Timothy Busfield can RAKE. All the Twins in the movie actually look like they can play baseball, a statement that has not always been true of the actual Twins. (In fact, some of the actors in the film were actual major league ballplayers, including Kevin Elster, Brad Lesley, and Leon Durham.) It’s what makes the movie’s two Twins-focused montages so enjoyable. (Note: the latter of which is set to “Runaround Sue” and is an all-time classic of sports movie montages, up there with this one from The Karate Kid, this one from Rocky IV, and this other one from Rocky IV.) The movie just gets everything right, or close enough to right that it doesn’t matter. It’s got a wonderful soundtrack (the aforementioned “Runaround Sue,” the obligatory “Center Field”), the adult cast is also full of wonderful characters (Kevin Dunn, Dennis Farina, Jason Robards, Jonathan Silverman, all terrific). And (SPOILER ALERT) it’s a great underdog story that doesn’t end with an improbable, unrealistic victory. The ending of this movie is top-notch, as is everything that comes before it... ...but actually OK here’s my second gripe: in the climactic Wild Card playoff game, Mariners manager Lou Piniella has Randy Johnson available in the bullpen. Let’s assume that Johnson has pitched a day or two earlier and that’s why he’s not starting. But this is Randy Johnson. One year earlier, he did this to John Kruk at the All-Star Game. You have to use him like he’s your closer. Piniella doesn’t use Johnson in the bottom of the ninth of a tie game (and to be fair, a lot of managers at that time, and even today, wouldn’t do that), nor in the tenth, nor the eleventh. The Mariners take the lead in the top of the twelfth, but even THEN Piniella waits until there are two outs and a man gets on base to bring him in. Was he only available for ONE BATTER? Was he waiting until Lou, a lefty, came up? You’re worried about matchups?? It’s Randy Johnson! He made a bird explode! You’re treating him like a LOOGY! It’s madness.
Incredibly (and if any of you are still reading at this point I really don’t know what to say), a very similar situation occurred one year after this movie came out. In an actual win-or-go-home game (Game 5 of the AL Division Series against my beloved Yankees), Piniella brought Johnson in on short rest in the top of the ninth. (I don’t like thinking about this game because the Yankees lost in wrenching fashion in the bottom of the 11th, but I went back and checked for this dumb blog post. You’re welcome.) In fact, Johnson pitched three innings in that game, on two days’ rest! He got the win! Real Life Lou Piniella proved that Movie Lou Piniella was dumb! My gripe is justified!

Am I happy I took Elroy’s recommendation? Oh God I love this movie.

What’s next?

UPDATE: Fellow Minnesotan Ellen Barr makes what is somehow her first appearance on this blog, recommending the 1995 coming-of-age film Now and then. FOTB Emma Jones has already put the soundtrack on in our house. Oh boy.